Eastern Africa: in the service of humanity
18 August 2012

Children enjoy a basketball skills class at Mai-Aini Refugee Camp, northern Ethiopia. Abraham Alemu/JRS.
It is impossible to be indifferent or lethargic as thousands of people starve to death or are at risk of being killed. In spite of the hardships we face, we have to act!
Nairobi 18 August – As we drove along the two-hour stretch of rocky gravel road from Dollo Ado Town to Melkadida refugee camp, one of the five camps in the southeastern part of Ethiopia hosting Somali refugees, one thought kept hounding me. ''It is impossible to be indifferent or lethargic as thousands of people starve to death or are at risk of being killed. In spite of the hardships we face, we have to act! Throughout my three-week visit to our projects in Ethiopia, this thought continued to strengthen in my mind.”

Even though Melkadida camp is only 65km away from Dollo Town, it is a difficult journey with choking dust, harsh desert terrain and constant fears of armed attacks. I pondered hard on the meaning of humanitarianism as I came to terms with the sacrifices that Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) staff members have to make to work in the service of the more than 40,000 Somali refugees living in that camp.

The power of JRS teamwork

When I finally met the JRS team in Melkadida, their commitment and enthusiasm was unquestionably firm. I witnessed them braving the unforgiving heat, the occasional chameleon spiders, scorpions, and deadly snakes, and the dark nights in tents that I feared would be uprooted by the regular strong winds. All this, in the service of those who have been deprived of their physical safety and dignity by conflict and climatic disasters, was remarkable to me. 

Dollo Ado Woreda (district) is currently home to over 165,000 Somali refugees divided amongst five camps. Even though the famine struck a year ago, the still relentless stream of Somalis seeking safety and life-saving assistance is a testimony to turmoil that continues in their country. My admiration was extended when I later travelled to the northern part of the country, to Mai-Aini Refugee Camp. I was deeply moved to witness, the care and affection that is extended to the hundreds of Eritrean refugee children who spend their days in the JRS compound. The staff work tirelessly to facilitate sports and recreational activities such as table tennis, volleyball, singing and drama to keep them engaged and away from harm.  Many of these children are without parents or caregivers and rely on older children and humanitarian agencies for support. 

Humanitarianism is an act

When I left Ethiopia, I was filled with nostalgia for all the moments I had spent with the JRS staff members in Addis Ababa, Mai-Aini and Melkadida. They had taught me what it means to be a humanitarian worker. They taught me, that over and above my daily tasks, I have to take time to reach out to my suffering brothers and sisters, to offer a loving word, a listening ear, and to share the little I have. Humanitarianism is an act; it is not taught in a classroom but it is an experience lived from being with those in need. It is indeed a social apostolate as envisaged in the mission and vision of JRS.  

As we mark World Humanitarian Day 2012 on 19 August, it is befitting to remember all the JRS staff in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan and Sudan who give themselves fully and unreservedly to the service of refugees and internally displaced persons within our region. This day is to honour all their efforts in the midst of adversity. Let us share in their struggles, their joys, their service and offer hope and help to those in need – in whatever small way we can.

The author, Stella Ngumuta, is Regional Advocacy Officer for JRS Eastern Africa. She visited JRS Ethiopia projects during July 2012. Read more about World Humanitarian Day and show your support here: http://www.whd-iwashere.org/ or on the Eastern Africa site here: http://whd2012.tumblr.com/